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'Bloated bureaucracy' or bullying balderdash?

By Lyndsay Connors - posted Friday, 28 September 2012

Even those who aspire to make informed, rational and civil contributions to the debate about the public funding of our schools are not assisted by the complex web of schools funding arrangements in this country.

And, in fairness to the headmaster of The King's School, Timothy Hawkes, anyone spending their days beneath its motto, Fortiter et Fideliter, might be as drawn as he is to indulge in the rhetorical device of consonance.

'Bloated bureaucracies' was one example that popped up in his recent contribution to the schools funding debate. It came in response to the NSW Government's proposal for stripping $1.7 billion from its education budget, with the non-government school sector to take its share.


From the vantage point of his private school, Headmaster Hawkes expressed his opinion in a newspaper letter (Sun-Herald, 16/9) that 'the cuts borne by public education were limited to trimming bloated bureaucracies', and that 'their schools would have been unaffected'.

His letter did not disclose how an outsider, the head of an independent, non-government school, had acquired the detailed knowledge of the duties, workload and effectiveness of departmental employees to inform these allegations.

The case for greater rather than lesser public investment in Australian schooling mounted by, for example, the recent Gonski Review is backed by credible evidence. But, again in fairness to the headmaster, can it ever be said that there is no scope whatsoever to streamline some procedures in the NSW public school system? And who of us has not had to cut corners to meet the word limit for letters to the editor?

So it may well be that headmaster Hawkes can produce evidence to substantiate his claim of 'bloat' and the assertion that cuts would not damage public schools. But without it 'bloated bureaucracies' sounds more like a cheap shot than the informed commentary expected of an education leader.

His letter went on to claim that the cuts to public schools were less painful than those to independent schools, because the 'independent schools had no bureaucracy to bear the cuts'. This is disingenuous. His school has staff who perform for it the administrative tasks performed by the 'bureaucracy' for the over 2,000 schools in the NSW public system. They also provide professional learning, curriculum and ICT support for classroom teachers. It would surely be remiss of an independent school with an archivist and a squad of employees to tend its large grounds not to do the same.

In the run-up to the inclusion of financial data on the MySchool website, the private school sector (rightly) insisted that the financial value of the support provided by the central bureaucracies for public schools be attributed to the total per student funding reported for the individual schools. This was to enable a comparable assessment of the financial income of schools across the sectors. Is it not now hypocritical of headmaster Hawkes to claim that the loss of services provided by bureaucrats in NSW have no financial or educational impact on schools?


Dr Hawkes's letter then moved to the realm of speculation. By the time his letter was published, political pressure from the private school sector had achieved a significant government backdown. Nevertheless, he opined that, if the NSW Government had attempted "to take 53 per cent of the state funding from any state school"… "we would be talking capital, not corporal punishment".

This attempt to compare the effect of proposed cuts on his school and on the public school system was rendered specious by a serious sin of omission. Whether by default or design, the headmaster failed to mention that his school draws less than 3 per cent of its total income from the State. So any proposed 53 per cent cut would have applied only to this tiny portion of The King's School income. By contrast, the State provides roughly 90 per cent of the income of the public school system. And even if The King's School were to suffer a cut of 53 per cent to its total funding, this would still leave it with around twice the funding of the most comparable government schools

To explore further the comparison of the NSW government's treatment of schools, let us take one of the schools in the public system serving a concentration of students from financially and educationally privileged backgrounds. Imagine that, like King's, it gets a total of $25,000 or more per secondary student. This requires a feat of imagination, since public schools would only be funded at this rate when catering for students with significant learning or behaviour problems or extreme social disadvantage.

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About the Author

Lyndsay Connors AM FACE is an educator who is currently chair of the Teacher Education Advisory Board at the University of Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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